Gov. Tate Reeves speaks to media about his shelter-in-place order for Lauderdale County during a press conference at the State of Mississippi Woolfolk Building in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, March 31, 2020.

Gov. Tate Reeves, before a midnight Wednesday deadline, vetoed the bulk of the state public education budget and a handful of other bills, including two criminal justice reform measures aimed at reducing the prison population.

Reeves on Wednesday had telegraphed his intent to veto the education budget, saying it would result in a pay cut for thousands of teachers.

For the criminal justice reform measures, Reeves said they “went too far,” and would result in dangerous criminals on the street.

Reeves in a social media post said his vetoes thwarted “efforts in the Legislature to cut teacher pay and let violent criminals out of prison early.”

It is unclear when the Legislature could return to deal with the vetoes – either sustain or override them – and other unfinished business, because of a COVID-19 outbreak at the Capitol. At least 26 lawmakers and 10 staffers have tested positive, the state health officer said Wednesday.

“It would be at least 14 days from today before the Legislature could meet remotely safe … and that’s only remotely safe,” Reeves said Wednesday.

Highlights of Reeves’ vetoes:

Education budget: Reeves said he vetoed most of the state’s $2.6 billion public education budget because lawmakers shifted $26 million from a teacher incentive pay program to the main operational budget for school districts.

He said that means “23,157 Mississippi teachers would get money that they’ve earned taken out of their pockets.”

The incentive program, which Reeves championed when he was lieutenant governor, was created in 2014 and gives merit pay to teachers in high-performing schools and those in schools that improve a letter grade. The system has received some criticism, saying it exacerbates problems with recruiting teachers to struggling districts.

House Education Chairman Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, on Wednesday said lawmakers had assured Reeves the program could continue without him vetoing or the Legislature having to redo the budget. But Reeves said the veto was necessary to prevent teachers getting a pay cut.

Reeves said public education is a constitutionally mandated state responsibility and will continue to be funded and function after his veto, and “The bulk of the agency will run in the short term by a letter from me, backed up by an AG opinion” until the Legislature addresses it.

Criminal justice reform: The state faces a prison crisis – overcrowding, violence and lawsuits including one from the Department of Justice – largely from Mississippi’s harsh sentencing laws and lack of reentry programs. Lawmakers passed a suite of reform bills aimed at reducing prison population and other problems.

Reeves vetoed two of the measures.

Reeves said Senate Bill 2123, which would have provided parole eligibility for thousands of inmates, “was well-intentioned but too far.” He said the measure would have allowed parole for people convicted of crimes that could get them the death penalty if they had been sentenced to life instead. He said it would also have allowed parole of violent offenders who are 60 or older, removing restrictions currently in place for violent and habitual offenders.

House Bill 658, aimed at helping convicts re-enter society and the workforce, would increase the number of felony expungements people could get after serving their sentences and a five-year wait from one to three.

Reeves said allowing people to erase multiple felonies from their records would result in “career criminals walking around with no records.”

House Judiciary B Chairman Rep. Nick Bain, R-Corinth, who helped pass the reform measures, said Reeves was under a tight deadline for signing or vetoing bills and “I don’t know if he had all the details from what we did.”

“Particularly (Senate Bill) 2123, we had a lot of input from conservative groups, and lots of criminal justice experts’ input,” Bain said. “We were addressing a lot of issues the DOJ has. That’s certainly the governor’s prerogative to veto. He mentioned in his message wanting to discuss this with us, and I certainly hope he keeps that line of communication open.”

Skills training: Reeves said, “I had to veto one bill that I love,” House Bill 1387, which would allow skills training instead of traditional education.

“It goes just a little bit too far by conflicting with federal law,” Reeves said. “Because of that it put federal dollars for skills training at risk … Great goal – just needs a few tweaks and we can get it done.”

Federal coronavirus health care spending: Reeves vetoed two line items in a bill spending $130 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act money on Mississippi health care.

Reeves vetoed $6 million earmarked for the MAGnet Community Health Disparity Program, calling it “an earmark to give $6 million of CARES Act funds to a cherry-picked corporation to address disparity.”

“If they gave it to the Health Department, that’d be fine,” Reeves said. “But there’s no justification for slipping it to handpicked interests and letting them dole it out to others for a vague mission.”

Reeves also vetoed $2 million in the health CARES spending earmarked for Tate County for “North Regional Medical Center or its successor.” Reeves noted the hospital has been closed since 2018 and asked, “How does that have anything to do with COVID-19? They’ve been closed for two years.”

Reeves said he is signing hundreds of bills lawmakers recently passed, and letting some go into law without his signature “because I didn’t love them – lots of earmarks for special projects.”

“But (I) didn’t feel like they rose to the level of a veto,” Reeves said.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.